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In the last 20 years, the Hunter Valley has morphed from winemaking region to general playground. And, should a day off the wine appeal, there are plenty of other options.
Aqua golf: Gloriously silly, but unnervingly addictive, this watery take on a driving range sees would be Adam Scotts given a $7 bucket of balls to thwack with gusto into a lake. However, also in the lake are little floating nets – get the ball in one of them and you can win a prize, which is anything from a bottle of wine or a local restaurant meal to a £1,000 cash jackpot. Half the fun is in watching people get increasingly competitive, ordering extra bucket after extra bucket. Golf To The Max, Hunter Valley Gardens, Broke Road, 02 4998 7896, www.golftothemax.com.au
Cycling: The Hunter Valley YHA rents out good quality bikes to YHA members for $20 a day. The staff will suggest a route that takes in cheese and chocolate shops, plenty of photogenic vineyard scenery and not too many hills.
Segway tours: If cycling’s a little too energetic, there’s the lazy option – pootling round on a Segway. They’re surprisingly intuitive to control – it’s basically a case of leaning where you want to go – and East Coast Xperiences (1300 46 56 36, www.eastcoastxperiences.com.au) runs tours for $65. Lasting roughly an hour, these go around a golf course, along bush tracks, through vineyards and to clumps of trees where kangaroos like to hang out.
For grain rather than grape, the Hunter has two small breweries where you can tuck in to tasting paddles. The Bluetongue Brewery Café offers a good array of Bluetongue and Matilda beers, but the Potters Brewery is closer. Just a 400m walk from the Hunter Valley YHA, it specialises in light, easy drinking styles such as the German kolsch and a refreshing alcoholic ginger beer.
But these aren’t the only ale havens en route – Newcastle is quickly developing a reputation as Australia’s craft beer capital. The Grain Storeis the best place to work your way through the best brews from around the country – it has 21 taps, and they’re all reserved for Aussie craft beers.
Arguably the best of the bunch, however, can be found at Bob’s Farm between Port Stephens and Newcastle. This is the home of multi award-winning Murray’s. You can stop off at the brewery, taking a tour should you wish. Otherwise, tuck into the tasting wheel with six 200ml samples. Particularly interesting are the Belgian-style Grand Cru and the deliberately hoppier than usual Rude Boy pilsner.
Newcastle itself comes as a surprise. The heavy industry is still there, but the last couple of decades have transformed the foreshore of the Hunter River. You’d be hard-pushed to find a more blissful day in an Australian city than strolling along said foreshore, flitting between museums, parks and brewhouses, then continuing up the coast.
The city does a fine line in beaches, but it’s the pools between them that weave a magic spell. The Newcastle Ocean Baths are a giant art deco people-watching arena, while the convict-dug Bogey Hole ups the thrill factor by having the surf smash into it, drenching anyone foolish enough to stand on the side.
Seemingly equally foolish is self-driving in wine country – and that’s why many companies run wine tours around the Hunter Valley. But played smart, driving can be the way to expand your horizons. Dropping by at the tourist information centre on the way in works wonderfully – their printed guides have maps of the wineries, stating which ones do which varietals and staff will direct you to smaller cellar doors that are more likely to cater for your tastes.
I tend to like big, fighty reds, so I’m pointed in the direction of Piggs Peake – a backroad winery that doesn’t serve tour groups. Most of its business is done via a membership club – meaning you’re unlikely to see the wines in a supermarket. And the free samples reveal themselves to be the meaty, feisty monsters I whole-heartedly love.
The limitations of self-drive sampling can turn into strengths. Staying under the drink-drive limit involves forcing you to ask questions about which wines you’re most likely to enjoy and narrow down the number of samples to the ones cellar door staff particularly recommend. Not being in a group leads to a much more personalised service – and, if you ask nicely, further recommendations for other wineries that may fit the bill. It starts becoming a treasure trail – Adina also does olive tasting, there’s excellent cheese to try next to the big McGuigan cellar, Peterson’s does rare-for-the-Hunter Zinfandels.
In the morning before heading back to Sydney, I pop into Kevin Sobel’s on Broke Road for a sneaky final tasting session. As an unusually sweet, fruity verdelho is poured, out walks Archie. He’s the winery’s resident St Bernard, ever-ready for a good fussing. The road trip ends as it begins – with a heart-warmingly unexpected wildlife encounter.